Urbanity Performed: The Bronze Figure in Erfurt’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Erfurt Oath of the Jews


According to its design, the bronze figure in Erfurt Cathedral served best, in terms of the position of the arms, hands and balance, to present a scroll.[1] Neither the position of the left hand nor a third candleholder, which did not associate candle-holding with the human anatomy, suggests a holder of three candles, as the figure was used from 1425 at the latest. This alone is the basis on which the following argumentation is based. It requires no identification as Aaron, no Jewish owner or Jews, who had commissioned the work, and is compatible with an original installation in St. Mary’s Cathedral – I will discuss this at the end of my contribution.

The structure of the argument here is simple and it only reassembles known objects and texts. Where in medieval Erfurt did a need to present a large-format scroll exist? We know the only plausible scrolls of the epoch – just that was the starting point of our essay of 2016. These are Jewish Torah scrolls, which in their preserved oversize fit the statue perfectly. But where were these to be presented? Liturgically, this was the case in the synagogue ritual, a context, however, against which some arguments have been raised, iconographic ones (the lack of any covering of the hair) and as yet unpublished claims about the inscriptions on the girdle being cast rather than engraved and the girdle being an inseparable part of the astonishing composite figure. But there was a second context not yet discussed so far: the oath of the Jews. It is this hypothesis that I will discuss here.

Reconstruction Aaron, by Irene Rüpke

The Pledge of Allegiance

Just like the scroll-holder and the Erfurt Torah scrolls, the Erfurt Judeneid also poses riddles. The text is dated to the time shortly before 1200, the object to the time shortly after 1200, making the Erfurt oath of the Jews not only the oldest preserved text of a German-speaking oath to be taken by the Jews, but also the oldest independent official document in the German language; we see an official use of the German language only from the end of the 13th century onwards. And it is also the oldest text testifying to the existence of a Jewish community in Erfurt, which, however, is mentioned shortly afterwards, in 1212, in a document originating from Mainz.

The document provokes questions, even if both the ritual and the legal context are generally well known, not least thanks to the work of Christine Magin, Reinhard Ruf-Haag and Maike Lämmerhirt on the legal status of Jews in medieval Germany and in Erfurt in particular.[2]

Judeneid, Stadtarchiv Erfurt

The oath, as conditional “self-cursing”, is a religious technique that opens up enormous scope for action where the means of verification, control or sanction of the parties involved cannot ensure the reliability of the actions of the human parties involved. This applies equally to both types of oaths, which were ideally distinguishable in medieval Europe:

  • The assertoric oath affirms a statement of fact and finds its place above all in the settlement of disputes, in the judicial system.
  • The promissory oath reaffirms the promise of a future achievement and finds its place above all in the formation of alliances, whether this is the coniuratio of a citizenship, the oath of allegiance of vassals or an oath of alliance, which in each case was the first to establish these communities.[3]

In the event of false testimony or failure to keep the promise, the sworn committer calls upon divine powers to destroy him (or her). In theological reflections of the early Middle Ages, one could even speak of another sacrament, the “sacrament of the oath”.[4] The shared belief in the fulfillment of what has been requested, that is, in the sanctioning power of the invoked divine power and the associated high risk of perjury, transforms the sworn statements and promises into a sustainable basis for coordinated action among people halfway equals or, in this very matter, treated as equals.

While Jews in medieval European societies were often inferior in theological, legal-theoretical and canonical respects, and at best tolerated as living witnesses of the Old Covenant and even protected from afar, by emperors, kings, and sovereigns,[5] the situation in concrete urban contexts may have been quite different. Here, Jewish men (and women) possessed skills, material resources, knowledge or economic contacts that made them partners not only selectively but permanently, in short, neighbours. This very fact made it necessary to integrate them also beyond the religious border into the web of sworn obligations and assertions and created the “Jew’s oath”: a form of conditional religious oath swearing that was credible and reliable also for the Christian partners.

In accordance with this objective and against the background of a rich and diverse pagan, Jewish and Christian tradition of oaths, rituals were created that took into account both sides, the highest obligation and deterrent for the Jews who took the oaths, as well as the Christian witnesses who had to trust in the effectiveness of the self-commitment. The oath worn before the Creator God and the representation of this God by his most important sacred writings – the Pentateuch instead of the Gospels used for Christian oaths – offered the solution that had certainly been pursued since late antiquity. The imagination of the sanctions and the sanctioning instances to be formulated in the “self-cursing” of the oath taker were oriented on precedents in exactly these texts, the stereotypes remained quite stable, even if oaths were repeatedly reformulated. One can rather speak here of a transferable motif than of a textual genealogy.[6]

Variations were offered by the ritual arrangement of the oath. The tendency was that in cases of lesser importance the taking of the oath was tolerated to be performed in immediate Jewish contexts, e.g. by swearing an oath by a Torah in a synagogue, taken by a person understood by Christians as a Jewish cleric. “Self-cursing” had to work in its own religious context after all. But the emphasis could also be shifted to the public sphere of the witnesses to the oath, from the synagogue door to the courtroom.[7] In the former case, the ritual could also be designed as an utterance when holding on or connecting to the doors of a synagogue. In public spaces it was important to guarantee the authenticity of the sacred text present in the ritual of the oath. This may have required reassurances from Jewish specialists.[8]

A last loophole had to be closed by the formulaic nature of the oath itself: It was not to be spontaneouly formulated, but had to be written, read out loud and repeated.[9] All this in a language that allowed the person swearing, but above all the witnesses, to understand the process including the far-reaching consequences that resulted from the verbal act, the performative utterance. At Erfurt, the decision was taken to use the German language. And it was the oath of the Jews in which this language was given the status of a language of documents for the first time here, indeed in the whole of Germany as mentioned at the beginning.[10]

Schwabenspiegel, MS Bruxellensis 14689-91, fol. 204r, early 15h century (Wikicommons)

The Erfurt oath

“Whatever this [man] accuses you of, you are innocent of it, so help you God, who created heaven and earth, leaves, flowers, and grass that did not existed before. And if you swear falsely, may the earth swallow you like Dathan and Abiram [from those around Korah]. And if you swear falsely, you shall be afflicted with the leprosy from which Naaman was healed and which attacked Gehazi [cf. 2 Kings 5]. And if you swear falsely, the law which God gave Moses in Mount Sinai and which he wrote with his own hand on the tablets of stone shall destroy you. And if you swear falsely, all the scriptures contained in the five books of Moses shall prostrate you. This is the oath of the Jews that Bishop Conrad gave to this city.”[11]

“Des dich dirre sculdegit, des bistur vnschuldic. So| dir got helfe. Der got der himel vnde erdin gescuf, | loub, blumen vnde gras, des da uore nine was. Vnde | ob du unrech|te sweris, daz dich di erde uirslinde, | di Datan unde Abiron uirslant. Vnde ob du unrech|te sveris, daz dich di muselsucht biste, di Naaman-|nen liz vnde Iezi bestunt. Vnde ob du vnrecht | sweris, daz dich di é uirtilige, di gut Moisy gab | in dem berge Synay, di got selbe screib mit sinen | uingeren an der steinir tabelen. Vnde ob du unrech|te sweris, daz dich uellin alle di scrift, di gescriben | sint an den uunf buchen Moisy. Dit ist der Iuden | heit, den di biscof Cuonrat dirre stat gegebin hat.”[12]

With the exception of the last sentence and one detail, both of which I will discuss in a moment, the text is unobtrusive. It brings together motifs that can also be found elsewhere, some of them already in Carolingian formulas. What is striking, on the other hand, is the magnificent design, which refers to a no less magnificent and publicly visible ritual. Even if the parchment is not worn out, it must have been used at least occasionally: The certificate cannot have been issued for display. In a very striking way the seal is attached upside down. This was not by chance, but suggests that it must have been held in a certain way: Only when someone is facing the person holding the parchment can that person see the seal properly when it is held up.[13] However, this finding by Ullrich Bruchhold needs to be further elaborated. Who holds an oath on a silk cord? It must have been the person taking the oath himself, who in this way connects himself with the text of the oath, which he must repeat in the first person, and also makes it his own physically. And here the process takes on a dimension that goes beyond the text: the oath given by Bishop Konrat II (1161-1200) is performed in the face of the city arms, the city of Erfurt, as written on  the seal: Erfordia. fidelis. est. filia M[o]gontine. sedis: “Erfurt is the faithful daughter of the bishopric of Mainz.”[14]

The ritual is, as historian Gerd Althoff puts it, a “made”, a composed, ritual, which sends certain messages in its details and yet is also able to undercut superficial messages – the rule of Bishop Konrat – [15] and bring the city of Erfurt to the fore. The oath of the Jews was an urban necessity. Like the de facto or even explicit civil rights for Jews, it was not an outflow of canonical legal thought, but a pragmatic construction that was contrary to canonical thinking. The bishop could only cover this up with his granting the privilege of an oath or citizenship – the latter in Erfurt since 1306 (perhaps not for the first time).

But the ritual still lacks the most important instrument, holy scripture. While some Jewish oath formulas stipulate that the swearing person should place his hand in a biblical book (or even a specific passage like the Decalogue), here we are referred to the Pentateuch in a very idiosyncratic formulation: “that the Scriptures might fell”, “prostrate you”.[16] This formulation, which elsewhere can only be found in the Judeneid of the Magdeburg Weichbildvulgata in a manuscript from 1369,[17] would be much more concise if we imagine the presence of the biblical text in the form of one of the Erfurt giant torah scrolls. The large publicity of the ritual suggests the presence of a role instead of a book, as is regulated, for example, in citation 3.17.46 of the Meissen Law Book for higher amounts in dispute.[18] The imaginary fall of the bronze figure with its four and a half hundred weight (including the roll) above the base, which clearly towers above any oath taker, probably made such an end very vivid.

The carrier of the giant gate roll

Bronze figure in Erfurt Cathedral, courtesy Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-E00952 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Yet, it is not the statue but its base that my hypothetical reconstruction of the ritual directs us to. The ritual was an urban ritual that enabled the citizenry to act by making the Jews legally responsible. Jews had the financial as well as demographic strength that made them build the Old Synagogue in the shape of the 12th century. At the beginning of the 14th century they accounted for perhaps up to ten percent of the city population.[19] They were supposed to “take part, like the Christian citizens, in guard services, entrenchment work and, in an emergency, in the defence of the city”.[20] It is the walls that made up the medieval town.[21] This also applied to Erfurt. The Torah roll carrier stands with both feet inside of such a wall, is surrounded by it. In this ritual these miniature walls, which form the bronze basis of the statue, would refer to Erfurt, not to any other historical or eschatological city.

But the base is also essential in another, quite pragmatic sense. It made the Torah roll holder moveable. This figure could not be used without stable scaffolding with eyelets for support bars. Wherever else it might have had it usual place, it had to be taken to a public square, a place of justice – most likely to the cathedral square. Even if city councillors had had it made for this ritual, the process of design of figure and ritual must have been in close contact with those religious specialists that had to ensure the oath worked. Confronted with the episcopal image on the one hand, Aaron would have been the figure to counterbalance this on the other.

Jörg Rüpke is a scholar of religion, focusing on the ancient world. He is the co-spokesperson of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal formations”.


Althoff, Gerd 2003. Die Macht der Rituale. Symbolik und Herrschaft im Mittelalter. Darmstadt.

Blaha, Walter 2002. “Die Eidesformel für Erfurter Juden aus dem ausgehenden 12. Jahrhundert.” Stadt und Geschichte, Zeitschrift für Erfurt. 3-4.

Bruchhold, Ullrich 2002. “Vom rituellen Vollzug zum Verständnis Überlegungen zum Erfurter Judeneid.” In Hellrardt, Ernst, Stephan Müller, Peter Strohschneider (ed.). Literatur und Macht im mittelalterlichen Thüringen. Köln/Weimar. 31-44.

Casteigt, Julie, Dietmar Mieth, Jörg Rüpke 2016. “Der Träger der Erfurter Risentorahrolle: Eine religionsgeschichtliche Hypothese zu einem übersehenen Judaicum.” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 68 (2). 97-118.

Cohen, Jeremy 1999. Living letters of the law. Ideas of the Jew in medieval Christianity, The S. Mark Taper Foundation imprint in Jewish studies. Berkeley.

Flachenecker, Helmut 1988. Eine geistliche Stadt: Eichstätt vom 13. bis zum 16. Jahrhundert. Regensburg.

Frankel, Zacharias 1861. Der Judeneid vor den preussischen Kammern.

Herz, Gerhard 2008. “Der Erfurter Judeneid zu Ende des 12. Jahrhunderts.” Stadt und Geschichte, Zeitschrift für Erfurt. Sonderheft 8. 13-14.

Hillmann, Helmut 1930. Das Gericht als Ausdruck deutscher Kulturentwicklung im Mittelalter. Ein geistesgeschichtlicher Versuch als Beitrag zur Geschichte des ostsächsischen Rechtes auf Grund des Sachsenspiegels und des Magdeburger Rechts, Deutschrechtliche Forschungen. Stuttgart.

Isenmann, Eberhard 2012. Die deutsche Stadt im Mittelalter 1150 – 1550. Stadtgestalt, Recht, Verfassung, Stadtregiment, Kirche, Gesellschaft, Wirtschaft. Wien.

Kisch, Guido 1978. Forschungen zur Rechts- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden in Deutschland während des Mittelalters. Vol. Band 1, Ausgewählte Schriften. Sigmaringen.

— 1979. Forschungen zur Rechts-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte der Juden. Ausgewählte Schriften 2. Sigmaringen.

Kümper, Hiram 2007. “Juden vor Gericht im Fürstenstaat der Aufklärung: Die Kontroverse um den Judeneid.” Aschkenas-Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Kultur der Juden 17,2. 499-518.

Lämmerhirt, Maike 2007. Juden in den wettinischen Herrschaftsgebieten: Recht, Verwaltung und Wirtschaft im Spätmittelalter. Veröffentlichungen der Historischen Kommission für Thüringen 21. Köln/Weimar.

— 2012. “Die Stellung der jüdischen Gemeinde Erfurts in Thüringen und Aschkenas, Erste Ergebnisse.” In Stadtverwaltung, Landeshauptstadt Erfurt (ed.). Erfurter Schriften zur jüdischen Geschichte – Die jüdische Gemeinde von Erfurt und die SchUM-Gemeinden, Kulturelles Erbe und Vernetzung. Erfurt. 28-39.

Magin, Christine 1999. “Wie es umb der iuden recht stet”: Der Status der Juden in spätmittelalterlichen Rechtsbüchern. Göttingen.

Prodi, Paolo 1992. Il sacramento del potere. Il giuramento politico nella storia costituzionale dell’Occidente, Annali dell’Istituto Storico Italo-Germanico in Trento : Monografie ; 15. Bologna.

Rauschert, Jeannette 2008. Herrschaft und Schrift: Strategien der Inszenierung und Funktionalisierung von Texten in Luzern und Bern am Ende des Mittelalters, Scrinium Friburgense. Berlin.

Ruf-Haag, Reinhold S. 2007. Juden und Christen im spätmittelalterlichen Erfurt. Abhängigkeiten, Handlungsspielräume und Gestaltung in einer mitteleuropäischen Großstadt.  Diss. Trier.

Schmidt, Annette 2002. “so dir got helfe – Die Judeneide.” In Schulze, Ursula (ed.). Juden der deutschen Litratur des Mittelalters – Religiöse Konzepte – Feindbilder – Rechtfertigungen. Tübingen. 87-105.

Stobbe, Otto 1866. Juden in Deutschland während des Mittealters in politischer, socialer und rechlicher Beziehung. Braunschweig.

Vormbaum, Thomas 2006. Der Judeneid im 19. Jahrhundert vornehmlich in Preußen. Jurisitische Zeitgeschichte 2. Berlin.

Zimmermann, Volker 1973. Die Entwicklung des Judeneides – Untersuchungen und Texte zur rechtlichen und sozialen Stellung der Juden im Mittelalter. Europäische Hochschulschriften 56. Frankfurt a. M./Bern.

[1] Demonstrated by Casteigt, Mieth, Rüpke 2016 (open access: DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/15700739-90000219). Thus far, no arguments to the contrary have been presented. The present text has been presented in German at a conference organized by the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt in August 2016.

[2] Magin 1999 (based on Zimmermann 1973; Kisch 1978,  1979); Ruf-Haag 2007; Lämmerhirt 2007,  2012. On German Jewry s. a. Schmidt 2002.

[3] For the connection with a written legal status, see Rauschert 2008, who refers to the “sworn letter” first publicly sworn in Lucerne in 1252 (99). – The citizens’ oath was partly repeated annually, for example in Eichstätt Flachenecker 1988, 142.

[4] See Prodi 1992, 72-75; 130.

[5] Plus Cohen 1999.

[6] See the above-mentioned broadly based studies of the Jewish oath in medieval Germany – and beyond (see for example Frankel 1861, Vormbaum 2006, Kümper 2007).

[7] See, for example, the regulations of the Vienna Jewish Oath, Magin 1999, 303; see also the Görlitz Oath, possibly dating from the 12th century, ibid. 304.

[8] E.g. in the Magdeburg Weichbildvulgata, Magin 1999, 307.

[9] Short Herz 2008, 14.

[10] See Bruchhold 2002.

[11] Book of Documents Hesse and Thuringia p. 150, no. 192 with the replacement of “destroy” by “prostrate” (i.e. “fell”).

[12] Mainz Book of Documents 2.2, p. 1097, no. 672.

[13] Bruchhold 2002. The performative use of the text has now been shown independently and in detail by Andreas Lehnertz (talk in November 2019, Erfurt, forthcoming in a book edited by Claudia Bergmann and Maria Stürzebecher).

[14] On the seal Blaha 2002, 4, stating that accidental improper attachment of the seal is very unlikely.

[15] Althoff 2003.

[16] See Hartmann von Aue, Erec 3774: “das in got velle!“

[17] Quoted according to Magin 1999, 307: “Dat die die die scrift velle, die bescreven stat an den vinf büken Moysi”. Stobbe 1866, 158, already gave a general description of the parallel formulas.

[18] Magin 1999, 324.

[19] Isenmann 2012, 157.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Hillmann 1930, 74.

Rüpke, Jörg. “Urbanity Performed: The Bronze Figure in Erfurt’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Erfurt Oath of the Jews”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 29/01/2020. https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/685

Cite this blog post
Jörg Rüpke (2020, January 29). Urbanity Performed: The Bronze Figure in Erfurt’s St. Mary’s Cathedral and the Erfurt Oath of the Jews. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3c2

Jörg Rüpke

Jörg Rüpke is Fellow in Religious Studies and Vice-director of the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies of the University of Erfurt, Germany. His research interest focus on ritual, religion and urbanity. Recent publications include: Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion (Princeton, 2018); Urban Religion: A Historical Approach to Urban Growth and Religious Change (Berlin, 2020); Religion and its History: A Critical Inquiry (London, 2021); Ritual als Resonanzerfahrung (Stuttgart, 2021).

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